Just Don’t Do It

Written by: Sam Alhadeff

Decertification. This is the common word floating around Washington when President Donald Trump, his administration, and his fellow members of the Republican Party (and some from the Democratic Party) talk about what should be done about the Iran Deal. In cable news appearances and stump speeches, one can hear echoes of “dumbest deal ever”, “put other countries on notice”, “a national embarrassment”, or, coming from Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly, “fix it or nix it.” All of these points boil down to one thing: they do not like the deal and want the President to do something about it. Grounded in an inaccurate memory of what was possible when the deal was signed and a misguided opinion on what can be achieved now, they think our country and the world would be better off with the deal in the rearview mirror. They are wrong. The President should not decertify the Iran Nuclear Deal. Just don’t do it.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the Iran Deal, was an international agreement signed in 2015 by Iran and the members of the P5+1 negotiating team, the five permanent UN Security Council members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany, a key trading partner of Iran. After over a decade of repeated sanctions and negotiations, Iran and the P5+1 partners agreed to the deal which would restrict Iranian nuclear development. Before the deal went into effect and nuclear-related sanctions were lifted, Iran was required to ship 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium out of the country and dismantle two-thirds of its centrifuges. Built on “verification, not trust,” the deal required Iran to permit nuclear facility access to the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While many of its provisions will “sunset” within 10 or 15 years, the deal’s provisions extended Iran’s breakout time (the time it takes to produce a nuclear weapon) from roughly 2-3 months to over a year.

Most importantly, the IAEA, P5+1 negotiators, and several American officials all have noted that Iran is complying with the terms of the deal, which makes it all the more confusing when reports indicate our President is planning to declare the deal is not in American interests and will decline to certify it.[1] In a photo shoot following a meeting with military leaders to discuss North Korea and Iran, President Trump offered an ominous prediction for the uncertainty he plans to unleash. In a flippant manner fitting for a former reality TV star, he told the press that this was the “calm before the storm.”

And a storm is exactly what would happen if Trump were to decertify the deal and anger our European negotiating partners. On multiple occasions, European leaders have stated their unequivocal support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. David O’Sullivan, the EU ambassador to the United States, said the EU believes “as long as Iran is fully respecting its obligations under the agreement, which is unanimously agreed to by everyone to be the case, we think this deal should remain in place.” Detractors of the deal contend that US decertification of the deal would force all parties back to the table where we could extract further concessions from Iran on certain clauses of the deal and on new issues related to inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing and state sponsoring of terrorism. Angering our most friendly allies by making a unilateral decision without consulting them would not start any process of renegotiation on the right foot, if new negotiations were to commence at all.

Even when the deal was first created, there was an intentional decision made by the Obama administration and its peers to focus solely on nuclear weapons. Questions of ballistic-missiles and regional hegemony were intentionally set aside, both for the infeasibility of finding an agreement covering this wide of an issue range and for the potential of weakening the deal by giving Iran leverage in the negotiating process. The deal’s critics seem to forget this intentionality. Both President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have made comments that Iran is complying with the nuclear restrictions but not the “spirit” of the deal, seemingly implying the purpose of the deal was something other than preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. To be sure, Iran is a multifaceted enemy, requiring more than one international agreement to address all of its destabilizing activities. That does not mean the deal is not working or Iran is not complying with the “spirit” of the deal. On the contrary, the deal is doing exactly what it is supposed to do: prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Criticisms of sunset clauses are fair; 10 years is not forever. Nevertheless, this criticism fails to live up to its own logic. By declining to certify the deal, which Iran looks likely to continue to obey, the United States could risk shrinking the timeline for a nuclear Iran to less than a year. As Colin Kahl argues for Foreign Policy, the US walking back from its commitments would be easy fodder for Iranian hard-liners to reignite their nuclear ambitions. This is the most comprehensive nuclear plan ever drafted, and it gives negotiators a window to reach a new agreement which could extend Iran’s nuclear breakout time even further.

The timing of President Trump’s “calm before the storm” comment perfectly illustrates the biggest reason not to decertify the Iran deal. The photo shoot followed a meeting discussing Iran, currently under an effective nuclear weapons agreement, and North Korea, a regime the US would like nothing more than to place under a deal similar to Iran’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In a world where US influence is waning and it is trapped in unwinnable wars around the world, the Iran Nuclear Deal is one arena where Americans can rest at ease knowing the threat of another nuclear-equipped enemy has been pushed off for at least 10, if not 15, years. Decertifying the deal throws all of this into limbo, adding another threat to global stability. Ballistic-missiles and state-sponsored terrorism can best be addressed while the deal is still in place. In fact, keeping the deal makes supplemental deals more likely by preserving our integrity in deal-making, pleasing our allies, and maintaining diplomacy with Iran. There is no reason to decertify the deal. Don’t decertify the deal. Just don’t do it.

[1] For clarification, the President has plans to decline to certify the deal, allowing Congress 60 days to decide if it wants to reinstate sanctions.